The Grim Reaper Can Now Compost Your Body

An artist's rendering of a future Recompose facility in Washington state, with reusable modular vessels that convert human remains to soil.

(Credit: MOLT Studios)


Ultra-green Seattle isn't just getting serious about living eco-friendly, but dying that way, too. As of this week, Washington is officially the first state to allow citizens to compost their own dead bodies.

Their bodies, including bones, were converted into clean, odorless soil free of harmful pathogens.

The Lowdown

Keep in mind this doesn't mean dumping your relative in a nearby river. Scientists and organizations have ways to help Mother Nature process the remains. For instance, the late actor Luke Perry reportedly was buried in a mushroom suit. Perry's garment is completely biodegradable and the attached microorganisms help the decomposition process cleanly and efficiently.

A biodegradable burial requires only a fraction of the energy used for cremation and can save a metric ton of CO2. The body decomposes in about a month. Besides a mushroom suit, another option coming down the pike in Washington state is to have your body converted directly into soil in a special facility.

A pilot study last summer by a public benefit corporation called Recompose signed up six terminally ill people who donated their remains for such research. Their bodies, including bones, were converted into clean, odorless soil free of harmful pathogens. That soil—about a cubic yard per person--could then be returned after 30 days to the subjects' families.

Green burials open the door to creative memorials. A tree or garden could be planted with your soil. This method provides a climate-friendly alternative to traditional funerals, circumventing toxic embalming fluid, expensive casket materials and other ecological overhead. The fertile soil could also be given to conservationist organizations.

Next Up

The new legislation in Washington will take effect May 1, 2020. The Pacific Northwest state has one of the highest cremation rates in the nation at 78 percent, only second to Nevada. Rising climate change and increased interest in death management will only speed this discussion to the forefront in other states.

A biodegradable burial requires only a fraction of the energy used for cremation and can save a metric ton of CO2.

It's also worth noting Perry wasn't buried in Washington State, but in Tennessee. It is unknown where exactly he was laid to rest, nor if it was done under a legal precedent or special exception.

According to the Green Burial Council, each state varies on how and where you can bury someone. Home burials are usually legal, but to do so requires establishing an official cemetery area on the property. How someone is buried has even more dynamic legislation. There will be new discussions about how neighbors contend with nearby decomposing bodies, legal limitations to private burial techniques, and other issues never addressed before in modern mainstream America.

Open Questions

It's unclear if green burials will be commonplace for those with less financial means or access. Mushroom suits average a couple thousand dollars, making them more expensive than a low-end casket. There are also the less obvious expenses, including designating the place of burial, and getting proper burial support and guidance. In short, you likely won't go to the local funeral home and be taken care of properly. It is still experimental.

As for "natural organic reduction" (converting human remains to soil in reusable modular vessels), Recompose is still figuring out its pricing for Washington residents, but expects the service to cost more than cremation and less than a conventional burial.

For now, environmentally sustainable death care may be comparable to vegetarianism in the 1970s or solar paneling in the 1980s: A discussion among urbanites and upwardly-mobile financial classes, but not yet an accessible option for the average American. It's not a coincidence that the new Washington law received support in Seattle, one of the top 10 wealthiest cities in America. A similar push may take off in less affluent areas if ecological concerns drive a demand for affordable green burial options.

Until then, your neighborhood mortician still has the death business on lock.

Damon Brown
Damon Brown co-founded the popular platonic connection app Cuddlr. Now he helps side hustlers, solopreneurs, and other non-traditional entrepreneurs bloom. He is author of the TED book "Our Virtual Shadow" and, most recently, the best-selling "The Bite-Sized Entrepreneur" series. Join his creative community at www.JoinDamon.me.
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Kidney transplant patient Robert Waddell, center, with his wife and children after being off immunosuppresants; photo aken last summer in Perdido Key, FL. Left to right: Christian, Bailey, Rob, Karen (wife), Robby and Casey.

Photo courtesy Rob Waddell

Rob Waddell dreaded getting a kidney transplant. He suffers from a genetic condition called polycystic kidney disease that causes the uncontrolled growth of cysts that gradually choke off kidney function. The inherited defect has haunted his family for generations, killing his great grandmother, grandmother, and numerous cousins, aunts and uncles.

But he saw how difficult it was for his mother and sister, who also suffer from this condition, to live with the side effects of the drugs they needed to take to prevent organ rejection, which can cause diabetes, high blood pressure and cancer, and even kidney failure because of their toxicity. Many of his relatives followed the same course, says Waddell: "They were all on dialysis, then a transplant and ended up usually dying from cancers caused by the medications."

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Linda Marsa
Linda Marsa is a contributing editor at Discover, a former Los Angeles Times reporter and author of Fevered: Why a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves (Rodale, 2013), which the New York Times called “gripping to read.” Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing, and she has written for numerous publications, including Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, Nautilus, Men’s Journal, Playboy, Pacific Standard and Aeon.

The White House in Washington, D.C.

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This article is part of the magazine, "The Future of Science In America: The Election Issue," co-published by LeapsMag, the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, and GOOD.

We invited Nobel Prize, National Medal of Science, and Breakthrough Prize Laureates working in America to offer advice to the next President on how to prioritize science and medicine in the next four years. Almost universally, these 28 letters underscore the importance of government support for basic or fundamental research to fuel long-term solutions to challenges like infectious diseases, climate change, and environmental preservation.

Many of these scientists are immigrants to the United States and emphasize how they moved to this country for its educational and scientific opportunities, which recently have been threatened by changes in visa policies for students and researchers from overseas. Many respondents emphasize the importance of training opportunities for scientists from diverse backgrounds to ensure that America can continue to have one of the strongest, most creative scientific workforces in the world.

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Aaron F. Mertz
Aaron F. Mertz, Ph.D., is a biophysicist, science advocate, and the founding Director of the Aspen Institute Science & Society Program, launched in 2019 to help foster a diverse scientific workforce whose contributions extend beyond the laboratory and to generate greater public appreciation for science as a vital tool to address global challenges. He completed postdoctoral training in cell biology at Rockefeller University, a doctorate in physics at Yale University, a master’s degree in the history of science at the University of Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar, and a bachelor’s degree in physics at Washington University in St. Louis.